The thing about Jason Mraz, aside from being one of the biggest pop stars in the word, is that he can be surprisingly easy to overlook. There’s a large chunk of my friend base who don’t know that he’s put out any music since 2008’s “I’m Yours”, much less two successful albums, including the person this article is about.
Every great album documents a certain moment of your life. They’re soundtracks for certain moments in time that record your own individual mythology, for better or worse. Unlike most listeners and even the artist himself, Jason Mraz’s Mr. A-Z is a war album to me that chronicles fear, the potential loss of a friend and overcoming crippling loneliness.
Several years ago, one of my best friends, and the person who introduced me to Jason Mraz’s music, enlisted in the army and was shipped to Afghanistan to fight as ground infantry. Several members of my family had recently passed away, and the idea that another person close to me was leaving for a war zone sent me into near panic attacks night after night as I sat alone in a dingy college library’s computer lab.
For whatever reason, Mr. A-Z was the only thing that could give me any comfort. I felt the battles taking place throughout the album. Beneath the pop and sweeping acoustic melodies, there was a subtle darkness and eerie percussion. Although unintended, I watched my fear and anxiety wage war against my confidence and hope that I would see my friend once he returned home, hopefully in the same state that he left in.
Mraz’s debut, Waiting For My Rocket to Come,was a colossal pop record with explosive hits like “The Remedy (I Won’t Worry)” and “You and I”. There is the same focus on pop for Mr. A-Z, but it begins to introduce the experimentation in genre and layers songs with a simple digital beat that sounds ripped out of a Sonic The Hedgehog game. It’s amazing, but there is an underlying strain and edge to the music that hadn’t seemed to have been there before this record. This type of experimentation would eventually begin to define the later part of Mraz’s career with albums like We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things and Love is a Four Letter Word.
For me, Mr. A-Z was always an album about overcoming. Overcoming fear, loneliness and throwing fist-fulls of confidence at the world. Each song is a progressive effort to overcome any self-imposed summit. It’s an issue Mraz himself addresses on “Wordplay”, as he sings, “The sophomore slump is an uphill battle and someone said that ain’t my scene / Cause they need a new song like a new religion / Music for the television / I can’t do the long division, someone do the math / For the record label puts me on the shelf up in the freezer /…/ Is everybody ready for the single and it goes…”
I listened to this album night after night for weeks as I worked on college finals, distracted at the idea of what war was like. I worried about the future. I worried about the past. Mr. A-Z was the only record that gave me solace as I walked home alone at four in the morning wondering if I would ever see him at home again.
The reason I attached so much meaning to this album is because, at the time, it felt like the record challenged adversity and discovered ways to overcome each obstacle with sass and humor. “Life is Wonderful” slowly built over a sinister jazzy guitar riff, and if you didn’t hear the lyrics play off of each other, the necessity of old age to appreciate youth, the necessity of darkness to find light, and “it takes a hole to make a mountain”, the guitar and eager drum would sound like despair itself.
But humor permeated the album and wordplay that never allowed itself to be taken too seriously. There are very few artists with enough confidence to write a complex pop song about premature ejaculation (“Clockwatching”) and refer to themselves as a “two pump chump”.
The song “Plane” began to terrify me. It had been his favorite song on the record, about a man helplessly in love with someone on the other side of the country. Its meaning and imagery changed in my brain from something romantic to the idea of my best friend racing over the skies of Afghanistan, of rocket fire, and trying to comfort himself by mouthing the lyrics, ““I cannot wait to call you and tell you that I landed somewhere / And hand you a square of the airport and walk you through the maze of the map / That I’m gazing at / Gracefully unnamed and feeling guilty for the luck and the look that you gave me”.
The chorus, “Well honey I can see your house from here / If the plane goes down, damn / I’ll remember where the love was found”, chilled my very soul.
Despite this, the album an uplifting wish to succeed. The rampaging percussion and jazz piano playing against Mraz’s magnificent croon on “Did You Get My Message” is one of the highlights of his career that shifts into a soulful ballad of hope. “Mr. Curiosity”, although a sad song, still finds peace against the downward spiral of the piano, and an operatic solo midway through. It always seemed to hold the panic attacks at bay.
I won’t say that Mr. A-Z is the greatest album Jason Mraz has put out; his fans are divided on that title depending on which part of his career and style they prefer. For me, each song represents the stairway out of the bowels of some campus building and into the cool humidity of the dewy early morning, upset about recent losses, hoping the distractions wouldn’t ruin my finals, and wondering if I’d ever see one of my best friends again. They gave me the strength to push the worry aside and get to work.
“Song For a Friend” became a tradition to cap off the night, and even to this day, I only play it on special occasions. Though he made it home successfully, this song was the anthem in my head for the few years he was in a war zone. It starts as a soft jazz number with the soft strum of acoustic guitars before the slow impulse of electric guitar and piano take over, the song ending in an orgy of sound as trumpets blast against Mraz’s echoing voice and a silky guitar solo. It’s the battle that I needed to win.
“Well you’re magic he said, but don’t let it all go to your head / Cuz I bet if you all had it all figured out, then you’d never get out of bed / No doubt, of all the things that I’ve read what he wrote me / Is now sounding like the man I was hoping to be / I keep on keeping it real cause it keeps getting easier, he’ll see”.
Mr. A-Z is, for all intents and purposes, a relatively simple album. But It’s also a statement against the hardships of the world – a rallying call to find something to grab onto and stay afloat. It’s an album about love and enjoying life. For me, it’s a reminder that nothing can ever truly conquer you if you push back against it. It’s all about the wordplay.
by Kyle Schultz
Kyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and is melodramatic.
I thoroughly enjoyed your review of Mr.A-Z and agreed with some points you made. It’s a beautiful album to listen to.
As a Jason Mraz fan, I completely agree with you! 🙂